Utes slowly showing the Pac-12 they belong

Gene Sweeney Jr.

Thought of as a preseason pushover, Utah is now a legitimate threat in the conference - for now, anyway.

Not many in the preseason took Utah seriously. Outside Salt Lake (and inside it, really), most felt the Utes would stumble through their season and finish yet another year on the wrong side of .500. While that still is a realistic option for this team, it won't be for a lack of fight. No matter how this year ends, Utah has, thus far, shown to be a difficult conference opponent - just ask Oregon State and UCLA fans.

Granted, both those games were losses, but in defeat, oddly, the Utes might have done more for their reputation than at any point during their winning inaugural season in 2011. They have, after all, only been outscored in their two conference losses by a combined 11 points - a year ago, in their first two defeats to Arizona State and USC, they lost by a combined 40 points.

It's clear this year's Utah team is better than last year's and because of it, other people are starting to notice.

Kevin Gemmell of ESPN had this to say:

  1. Utah won't make things easy in the South: The conference record might not show it, but Utah is a pretty good football team. Despite going 3-0 in its nonconference schedule, the Utes have yet to really make an impact in conference play. But they've made it tough for others -- pushing Oregon State into overtime a couple of weeks ago and then putting a scare into UCLA on Thursday. Six Utah turnovers (all interceptions) didn't help its cause. As for the Bruins, they survived a tough road game and did nothing to damage their national ranking. For a team that's expected to be in the hunt for the Pac-12 South, you have to imagine they are happy to have Utah in their rearview mirror.

This is not going to be an easy game for anyone. I'm guessing most opposing teams, sans Oregon, is looking at this contest as a potential loss - and yes, I even think Stanford might be a bit concerned. They should be. While the Cardinal is a fantastic program and very talented, Utah did everything they could to hand UCLA a blowout with six interceptions and still managed to take it down to the wire. That's impressive ... even in defeat.

Does that mean Stanford should expect a loss Saturday? Of course not. They should expect to win, as I'm sure every top-five team expects to do when they roll into the stadium of an unranked team. But you could make the case, and maybe this is a bit presumptuous on my part, that Utah is the best 3-2 team in the nation.

That's not much of a consolation prize, but it could foretell some good things down the road. Hopefully it does, anyway.

So, is this the week Utah finally stops being just a nuisance and becomes a full-on menace? I don't know. A lot will depend on Travis Wilson and his health - as well as the defense and, maybe most importantly, the Utes' offensive line.

But for now, people are starting to take notice of the program again. They're not just another team on the schedule. Still, if they don't start winning these games, that view will prove only a fad and then they will be known for how close they came instead of what havoc they wreaked.

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